“You know, we don’t have a children’s menu,” the receptionist told me over the phone, his voice suddenly getting a little terse. “Yes, I know,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”
I mean, I hope we’ll be fine.
When I called for a reservation at our town’s nicest restaurant, the one with a James Beard award or two, I mentioned that we’d need a high chair. The part about how our party would actually be four small kids and two adults just sort of tumbled out afterward. That’s when he got nervous.
“Have you dined with us before?”
I get it.
It’s expensive to eat there. Other people will be there. Other people will be paying lots of money to be there. We will be paying lots of money to be there.
But how did we get HERE? Is it so crazy that a young family would book a dinner at 5:30 on a Wednesday night?
Our kids are small but they were also born in Italy, where dining out is practically a national past time. These rascals have been to restaurants. And here’s what I learned about dining well with a crew in tow.
Say what you will about French parenting but when it comes to food and family around a table, no one does it better, or enjoys it more, than Italians.
We lived in Rome for four years, where three of our babies were born, and while our Dolce Vita had its share of ups and downs, one of our absolute favorite activities was spending a long afternoon together … at a restaurant.
There were cloth napkins and waiters in black jackets, usually one high chair for the whole place, never a children’s menu and don’t even think about a changing table in the bathroom. Yet, the experience was completely welcoming, comfortable and, believe it or not, fun.
Even for kids.
Even for other diners.
Italians expect children to be involved in mealtime experiences, whether they’re long, fancy or both, and I love them for it.
“Italian children are reared at the table,” writes Helen Ruchti in La Bella Vita. “They grow up sitting on the laps of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They are held and kissed. They learn all the family stories and secrets of neighbors and friends. They learn to talk and listen simultaneously, to talk loud enough to be heard. They learn the joy of being with family and the value of a lazy Sunday afternoon.”
“Ciao bella!” When we walked into a restaurant with our brood it was always smiles everywhere. Even crusty old Italian waiters who usually reserve their gruffest persona for tourists squeak out a smile (We may have lived there but it was still obvious that we’re American). They couldn’t seem to help it.
Italians put food, family and noise together, explains my friend Amy, a long-time ex-pat and mother of two in Rome. They’d be bored if there was nothing going on and no one to talk about. Even top rated restaurants are open to the littlest diners; the last time she went to Roman hot spot Agata e Romeo, a baby was celebrating his first birthday at the next table.
In fact, there aren’t many chain restaurants or venues marketed as “family-friendly”. No Red Robin, definitely no Chuck E. Cheese. But boy do they have pizza! It just happens to be handmade and freshly roasted in a fiery oven.
Waiters always asked if we’d like some variation of pasta with sauce served immediately for the little ones, and we usually declined. Instead we ordered off the menu, plates of pasta, vegetables and meats all with an eye toward what would be good to share with the kids.
But the experience wasn’t quick. There’s bread, water and wine upon arrival. Then antipasto. Then pasta, primo. Meat, secondo. And finally dolce followed by caffé. This often takes two or three hours. Sometimes four.
Another family or two usually came with us, each with small children of their own. Kids sat together at the table, flanked by adults who lent a hand as needed. They’d eat. They’d draw. They’d play with toys. A corner table allowed them to get up from the table (yes, up from the table) in between courses and play quietly out of the way. Obviously there was:
no running allowed.
But it wasn’t stressful and the kids actually loved going to restaurants.
Part of this, I imagine, is the fact that the parents enjoyed it. Plus, we did it a lot, so the rituals (napkins in laps, check out the menu, here comes the pasta…) became familiar.
Our kids are typically good eaters (though we have our share of misses), and with pasta and pizza in abundance, Italian food is about as kid-friendly as it gets. However, I learned to stack the deck in our favor with basic strategies like these:
- Always make it lunch, never dinner.
In Italy, dinner isn’t usually served until 8 PM which is exactly one hour past our kids’ bedtime. “Dining” with an overtired baby plus toddler in tow is no fun for anyone. The last thing I want to do is battle fatigue when we’re supposed to be enjoying a meal. Especially one we’re paying for.
- Take it outside.
Sometimes we pick a spot with a playground, yard or outdoor area for them to run around before and after the meal. The kids get fresh air and fun, we get a great meal. It’s a win-win. Or we’ll head to a country farm-turned-restaurant called an agriturismo. Many things are grown on the premises and it’s all regional fare cooked according to tradition. Plus, you really can’t go wrong with a visit to the barn.
- Bring something fun.
There’s a bag sitting by the door, loaded with goodies, diapers and snacks. We used to have our toddler assemble her own backpack full of activities. She called it her “fun pack” and put it on first thing in the morning.
- Have a plan B. We have an iPhone available for desperate occasions. Maybe the meal is going even longer than usual or the kids didn’t sleep well the night before. This is our Hail Mary move, but I’m not ashamed to say that we’ve got an episode of “Olivia” locked and loaded if we need it.
- Know when to call it quits.
If the meal becomes more stressful than special, there’s no sense in sticking it out. When our babies were very young, this was occasionally the case. Invoking the family motto, can’t win ’em all, we’d pack it up and try again another time.
Life in Rome was beautiful, frustrating (don’t even get me started on pushing a stroller through cobblestone alleys) and delicious, possibly in that order. But one thing is for sure, Italians just adore babies — even strangers’ babies — and that helps. With a giant blue stroller and three small kids, we were something between local oddities and celebrities in our neighborhood. Maybe it’s because most Italians have only one child (According to Theodora, Italy has a negative population growth rate of -.075%.), their rarity makes the little guys even more special.
This isn’t to say that other cultures don’t love and cherish kids but the Italian attitude toward children was one of my favorite things about living here (the driving, smoking and graffiti are all tied for my least favorite). From teenagers in skinny jeans to old men at our local cafe and ladies at the grocery store, they all coo and “quanto sei bella” their way through every interaction with our kids. Eating out was just par for the delicious course.
These are the memories we cherish most now that we’ve moved away from Italy.
And dinners no longer take 3 hours. And at ages 6, 4, 3 and 1, our rascals are a little bigger now–but not much.
We won’t do a Fun Pack for our fancy dinner but we have done something even more important: We’ve practiced. The kids sit at the table and Play Restaurant. “Oh, thank you waiter,” they chirp. “I’m sitting with my napkin on my lap!” They practice waiting. And the best thing of all, enjoying a wonderful dinner. Together.
That’s the point, after all. And you don’t always get that from a kiddie menu.